It may resemble a gym, with swimming pool, weights, climbing wall and sauna, but those who use the building focus strictly on business. And business at the new $17.2 million Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research (LASR) at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington DC is developing autonomous robots to boost capability of US warfighters.


LASR Exterior


The facilities exterior doesn't give much indication of the amazing research occuring inside

LASR director Alan Schultz, also director of the Navy Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence at NRL - a pioneer and world leader in spacecraft and satellite technology - says LASR will support a broad range of multidisciplinary basic and applied research related to autonomous systems.

Because of the distance between Earth and spacecraft orbiting above, many decisions must be made autonomously instead of waiting for a human to tell machines what to do. So a lot of spacecraft technology and expertise is being employed to develop autonomy for naval systems that have down-to-earth applications.

"While we do expect to have a lot of research involving autonomous vehicles, autonomy goes beyond vehicle platforms to autonomous systems for self-configuring and self-healing networks, autonomous sensor networks, and software to aid the warfighter in decision-making," says Schultz.

Rear Adm Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research at the Office of Naval Research (ONR), says this all-inclusive laboratory manifests the entire marine operation carried out by the Marines, sailors and Department of Defense service members of NRL.

The main objective of the ONR is the further advancement of robotics and autonomy. With the introduction of LASR, there is easy access to in-the-field experimentation, saving time and money.

"The purpose of everything we do is to ultimately support the warfighter," Klunder says. "This facility is a big step towards doing that better."

The facility is on the NRL campus, where the Anacostia river meets the Potomac in Washington, but for all research intents and purposes, what happens at the campus is more akin to work carried out in Southeast Asia or Afghanistan.

LASR's key feature is it provides researchers with the environment to test equipment, systems and concepts, while it bridges the gap between traditional laboratory research and in-the-field experimentation.

"Scientists can do a lot of developmental testing here before they have to travel to an expensive test range for reliability testing," says Klunder.

LASR has a number of high bays and laboratories with unique features to support research in autonomous systems. They are big enough for robots to crawl, climb, fly, swim, fight fires, all the time being tracked and recorded for analysis.

 LASR high bay


A tropical high bay in the facility

At LASR, robots are being developed to carry out difficult, dangerous and physical tasks. Moreover, they are being taught to think.

For example, NRL's Lucas and Octavia firefighting robots work alongside a ship's damage control personnel as a cohesive team. The robots track commands and gestures, and can even understand facial expressions. The robots have a few facial expressions of their own, and are quick to respond when an unclear or improper command is given.

Capt Paul Stewart, NRL commanding officer, says the LASR will allow scientists from different departments who might not normally work together to team up. "This collaborative environment is what makes it unique."

Source: Flight Daily News